Research center connects university resources with community groups
The University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs offers an array of services through its community-strengthening programs.
Published January 30, 2015 | January 2015 issue
Video Supplement: How Do Community Data Intermediaries Help Neighborhoods?
The Corcoran Neighborhood in Minneapolis, a roughly 40-block area situated a few miles south of the city’s downtown, is made up primarily of residential buildings and several stretches of commercial sites. The dominant housing type is the single-family, detached home, and more than half of the area’s 2,300 households—nearly 58 percent—are owner-occupants.
Eric Gustafson, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization (CNO), describes his neighborhood of 6,000 residents as stable, well-connected, and engaged. But to explain the more nuanced reality of his racially and economically diverse community, he invokes a literary reference.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” he says. “If you look into the numbers, you’ll see a growing divide between the people who own their homes and the people who rent.”
Case in point: 42 percent of the families in Corcoran who rent are living in poverty, compared to 11 percent of the families who own. Living in poverty means that a family of four—two parents, two dependents—had a household income of $23,283 or less in 2012.
Gustafson got involved with the CNO soon after moving to the neighborhood in 2003, and in his various positions there he has learned about the challenging realities that many of his neighbors, particularly the renters, face. While his experience with the CNO has provided a wealth of knowledge about the neighborhood and its residents, for other data on the demographic composition of the neighborhood—as well as information about other community resources—he often relies on assistance from a longtime community partner: the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), based at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.
“For the past few years, we’ve been working with CURA to identify emerging issues around rental housing,” he says, noting that the relationship between the two organizations has existed for decades. “We’ve discovered that a small group of bad landlords is taking advantage of some particularly vulnerable people, and with CURA’s help we’ve been able to address some of these issues.”
A history of partnerships
In 1968, the University of Minnesota formed CURA to elevate its role in helping address some of the critical issues facing communities during that era. Over the course of its 46-year history, the organization has built a rich track record of partnering with neighborhood groups, nonprofit organizations, and state and local government agencies to support projects aimed at strengthening Minnesota communities, with an emphasis on the Twin Cities metropolitan region.
“The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs is outward-looking by mission and exemplifies the best of what a land grant university should do,” says Edward Goetz, director of CURA. “By conducting applied research and technical assistance for public-oriented entities, we provide an opportunity for the community to access the resources of the university.”
At present, CURA operates more than a dozen programs designed to address different aspects of its partner organizations’ needs, from providing technical support in the application of geographic information systems (GIS) technology to researching tailored solutions for challenges that beset a wide range of neighborhoods. (To see the full list of programs that CURA operates, see “A panoply of programs” below.) Each of the programs has its own criteria for selecting projects to work on; while some require interested parties to submit formal applications, others need nothing more than an e-mail or a telephoned request. Most of CURA’s programs provide assistance for free, though some contract with organizations to conduct fee-for-service work. Combined with philanthropic and university support, the funds collected through these efforts pay for the organization’s operating budget.
To date, some of CURA’s major accomplishments include supporting the development of GIS technology, helping to launch both the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (www.minnesotanonprofits.org) and the Minnesota Housing Partnership (www.mhponline.org), and funding research that identified affordable methods to reduce toxic arsenic levels in public well-water supplies in Minnesota. Currently, CURA has 19 part- and full-time staff members and also employs roughly 80 undergraduate and graduate students each year.
Providing analysis and advice
For its recent work with the Corcoran community, CURA helped address issues that affect residents’ quality of life and financial health. CNO’s Gustafson lists off a series of complaints that his organization and neighborhood partners fielded in 2014 from more than 200 households in 19 different apartment buildings in the Corcoran area: bed bug infestations, frequent rodent sightings, peeling paint and plaster, unsecured common entryways, water leaks from neighboring apartments, drafty windows. This last grievance relates to a particularly costly issue: renters must pay utility bills that invariably jump—sometimes significantly—during cold months. According to Gustafson, the buildings’ owners are apportioning these energy bills among apartments, and the apportionments are based on square footage, not on usage. Combined, the charges can add between 10 and 20 percent to a tenant’s rent.
“Family budgets are breaking because of this,” he says, noting that many residents lack control of thermostats that regulate the temperature in their apartments. “These buildings have rickety, single-pane glass and no storm windows, and the tenants are not legally allowed to make physical upgrades to their units, like installing energy-efficient windows. Nor should they have to.”
With assistance from CURA, Gustafson and CNO launched a tenant-advocacy campaign based on information and engagement. CURA’s Community Geographic Information System (CGIS) program, which was established in 2007 to provide high-quality geospatial data analysis and technical assistance, supplied a steady stream of maps and spreadsheets that Gustafson has used in conversations with City of Minneapolis policymakers and personnel, the CNO’s board of directors, and other neighborhood groups. These included statistics, such as the average rent of a two-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood; and data-rich maps displaying information related to tenant livability, such as which residential structures in the neighborhood are licensed rental properties and where they are situated. Gustafson has used this information in building a case for the city to support tenants’ rights through more effective code enforcement and communication as well as in holding discussions with community residents and stakeholders.
For on-the-ground outreach, CURA’s Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing, which works with community groups to develop the organizing skills of neighborhood outreach staff and leaders, worked with CNO’s community organizer to develop strategies for engaging Corcoran renters, many of whom speak English as a second language. According to Gustafson, CNO’s intention was to build leadership among the renters themselves by empowering them to act on their own behalf. With tips from CURA, CNO’s community organizer successfully engaged 78 households in 2014 and prompted 48 to take action of some kind, such as petitioning their landlord or city councilperson to address a problem or requesting an official inspection from a city inspector. As of November 2014, these tenant actions had resulted in a series of building improvements and repairs, such as the installation of new windows and entry doors; the patching and repainting of splotchy and peeling walls and façades; the repairing of water-damaged roofs; and, in one apartment building, the removal and replacement of a carpet in the common area that, according to Gustafson, was crawling with bedbugs.
“Tenants are often held responsible for bedbug infestations,” he notes, “but how can they effectively eradicate them from their apartments if the areas outside of their units are infested?”
CNO also worked with the CURA:Tech program to develop a resource guide for tenants that better explains the city’s code concerning occupancy in rental housing. CURA:Tech, which was established in 2013, works with neighborhood stakeholders to solve community issues through the development of high-tech tools (e.g., web applications) and low-tech tools (e.g., printed communications). CNO and CURA:Tech researched Minneapolis municipal codes and, with help from the City of Minneapolis Regulatory Services Department, designed a pamphlet to explain how many people are legally allowed to occupy a residence and where they can sleep. The guide, which uses graphics and is written in both English and Spanish text, also includes information on resources that tenants can use to seek out legal advice or report problems.
By mid-2015, CURA:Tech and CNO aim to release another pamphlet that explains the minimal housing conditions landlords must provide for apartments in buildings with four or more units and informs tenants about what recourse they have for issues like drafty windows or pest infestations. Like the occupancy code guide, this one will include illustrations and will be translated into multiple languages.
“CNO realized there is a need for more information and greater transparency around rental ordinances, and we were happy to partner with them,” says Kristen Murray, director of CURA: Tech.
CURA’s recent involvement with CNO has extended to other neighborhood concerns as well. For instance, in 2010, CNO requested and received research and analysis of parking demand around an area of the Corcoran neighborhood that had been subject to development pressure. The work was conducted by the Kris Nelson Community-Based Research Program, which provides organizations and public agencies in the Twin Cities with undergraduate and graduate students who conduct community-based research projects. The resulting report was recently used by traffic engineers as they completed a Traffic Demand Management Plan in support of a major redevelopment project. Other examples of the research this program conducts include an examination of economic development strategies used to revitalize commercial corridors in underinvested areas and an exploration of ways to create hospitality-focused workforce training programs directed toward people of color.
Staying the course
Over the years, CURA’s purpose has remained constant: to strengthen urban and regional communities by sharing the knowledge and passion of university faculty and students. But its program offerings have evolved to accommodate technological advances and the changing dynamics of the communities it serves. CGIS, for instance, was established in 2007, and CURA:Tech was established in 2013.
“Our mission hasn’t changed, and it isn’t going to change a decade from now,” observes Edward Goetz, “but a decade ago, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine the tools we’re now using in our work with communities. If we want to remain effective and responsive, we’ll have to remain flexible as an organization.”
It’s likely that whatever the future holds, there’ll be no shortage of requests for CURA’s assistance. After all, affordable housing, strong local economies, clean air and water, and healthy food were priorities for communities when CURA formed nearly 50 years ago, and they will no doubt remain so tomorrow.
CURA’s Housing Forum: Learn as you lunch
In addition to supporting a host of programs that work to strengthen communities, CURA sponsors the Housing Forum, a series of free, semi-regular brown-bag luncheon meetings at which presenters and attendees explore issues and research relating to housing. Topics recently discussed during these events include efforts to create homeownership opportunities for Native American residents of the Twin Cities, trends in the rental market throughout the metropolitan area, and research to understand how a representative group of very low-income people has navigated the housing market from the time its members left their childhood homes. Housing Forum sessions are held on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus and are open to the public. For more on the event series, visit www.cura.umn.edu/housing-forum.
A panoply of programs
CURA offers a wide range of programs, listed below, that support community-strengthening projects. For more information on any of these programs, visit www.cura.umn.edu/program-overview.
 For more on this widely used federal poverty threshold, visit www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html.
 For example, Latinos make up 19 percent of the neighborhood population and 83 percent of them live in rental properties. (Figures are from CURA’s analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates for 2007–2012.)
 The Regulatory Services Department oversees the safety and soundness of the housing stock in Minneapolis. For more on its role, see “Working with finite resources, Twin Cities rental housing inspectors reward good, target bad,” in the October 2014 issue of Community Dividend, available via the Publications & Papers section of www.minneapolisfed.org.